Addicted to ink

Tattooed truckers – living canvases for skin art.

George Carter is a big, bad truck driver turned tattoo artist.

Wearing a camouflage Harley Davidson T-shirt and with multiple 20-year-old tattoos displayed on both arms, he shows off his recent motorcycle injury – a thumb rendered nearly immobile after months spent in a cast. Carter wrecked the bike and has been out of work for a while, but he plans to return as soon as he can bend his thumb enough to draw a decent tattoo. He’s already gotten back on the bike.

Transcend Tattoo in Branford, Conn., is a hub for well-known artists. Unlike the small, neon-lit shops on seedy beach boardwalks and in small-town strip malls, Transcend is a skin-art studio. The walls are warm, painted gold, and large windows let in light from the second floor. Leopard-print couches, jungle plants and a variety of playful and frightening works of art hang on the walls, both warnings for the hesitant and invitations for body-modification veterans. Behind the front desk, a tatted guy in a baseball cap with stretched earlobes tends to the daily paperwork.

Each artist has his own room in which to work and decorate as he pleases. Carter’s room, which a colleague is using until he returns, is a small square with a few works of art on the walls and a leather chair for customers.

Carter drove a truck for a friend’s company for three years, delivering sporadic loads and never knowing exactly when he would be home again. The last haul he did was a shipment of potatoes in northern Maine, and he credits the inconsistencies of the job to his friend’s management – not to trucking overall.

“I was spending a lot of time on the road and not making enough money,” Carter says. “If I hadn’t discovered tattooing, I would still be driving a truck.”

In 1987, Carter met a tattoo artist in a bar. He spent six months persuading the guy to teach him how to “push ink” until one day he finally agreed. He started doing small tattoos at first and took a job at a shipyard to make up for lost income. But after an injury sustained at the shipyard in 1992, Carter decided to pool his money and open a tattoo shop. He sold it several years ago and moved with fellow artists to Transcend.

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After 19 years, Carter is still drawing. His specialties range from black-and-white tattoos to portraits of animals, and his favorite piece is one he calls “Warrior Girl,” a black-and-white rendering of a woman wearing a leather mask.

Like Carter, “Trucker Tom” Wiles, the host of his own audio show podcast from the cab of his truck, is addicted to ink. He doesn’t want the kind of tattoo you can hide under a suit and tie.

“For me it’s just not as much fun to get a tattoo in an area that’s covered with clothing most of the time,” Wiles says.

But nearly every inch of his body is inked – his recent addition was a skull tattoo on the top of his bald head. The back tattoo alone cost about $1,500, and he estimates that he has spent thousands of dollars on tattoos since his first one in 1973.

“The fascination I have with tattoos is more or less an obsession,” Wiles says. “Most people are obsessed with one thing or another, and I just happen to be obsessed with tattoos.”

To the untrained eye, Wiles looks menacing. His skull tattoo complements the 18-wheeler on his neck he had done to show pride in the rig that gave him Trucker Tom fame. He drives for Shaffer/Crete Carrier, and his boss doesn’t seem to mind his hobby.

“The comments I’ve gotten from company employees have all been positive,” Wiles says. “After all, good tattoos are art, and art is meant to be looked at.”

The public perception is that tattoos and truckers go hand in hand. But are truckers really more likely to have tattoos? In an poll of 1,104 readers, 59 percent said they don’t have a tattoo and don’t want one. But 33 percent said they have one or more. Compare that to the 16 percent of Americans that a 2003 Harris Interactive poll found had tattoos.

Truck drivers getting their first tattoo could take a lesson from Joe Scheerer, a driver for Wal-Mart out of Waverly, Ill. He got his first ink in November 2006 after more than 20 years of waiting for the perfect design.

“I was afraid it wouldn’t be done the way I wanted it, ” Scheerer says.

He has been a trucker for years and has seen many tattoos, but he doesn’t think there’s much of a relationship between tattoos and trucking. “It’s not like I’ve been driving this long, and now I am an official truck driver because I have a tattoo,” he says.

It’s a cow skull intertwined with snakes, based on the cover of an album by his favorite band in high school, the Outlaws. The price tag was $150, and Scheerer has already planned his next one – the fireman raising the American flag at ground zero on 9/11 – for his left arm or shoulder blade.

Many first timers want to commemorate a special person, a family member who passed away or even a pet. Heather Dziedzinski’s ink honors her father’s life on the road before he passed away on Christmas Eve in 2002.

Jason Ackerman, a tattoo artist out of West Palm Beach, Fla., inked a red Mack truck on Dziedzinski’s right hip with her father’s initials and the moniker “Daddy’s Little Girl” against a backdrop of ocean scenery. She found Ackerman’s work online and scheduled an appointment with him at the Boston Tattoo Convention, a gathering of artists and ink hopefuls who come to see and purchase the best skin art in the world.

“For true tattoo lovers, getting inked is like shopping for priceless art,” Ackerman says. “If you love the artist, you buy the painting – on your body.”

Dziedzinski has seven tattoos and says the Mack piece was the most painful.

“It feels like a poking over and over and over, kind of a burning sometimes,” she says.

For both first timers and seasoned inkers, pain plays a key role in deciding on a tattoo’s placement and size. Ackerman, who’s covered most of his arms, admits that getting a tattoo can be extremely painful. “I got all the easy spots done, and now everything hurts and I’m a big wussy and don’t want to get anything tattooed anymore,” he says.

Jason Fejer, a driver from Albuquerque, N.M., has a tattoo of St. Christopher, whom he calls “the patron saint of travelers and truck drivers.”

“I got St. Christopher to honor all my safe miles,” Fejer says. “I always travel with St. Christopher in the truck.”

Fejer is a part-time OTR driver and a federal firefighter, and he is working on a tattoo of St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters. The body of the saint is almost complete – artist Alonzo Rodriguez is still working on the head.

His most meaningful ink is the sacred heart on his chest that he got when his dad passed away in October 2005. His back is covered in art as well: a lotus flower, the state symbol of New Mexico, a large dragon and the St. Christopher piece on his left shoulder blade.

Fejer and his wife, who recently had their first child, worry that American society turns up its nose at parents with tattoos. “It concerns me that I might be that weird dad at the pool party,” Fejer says. “But I think [tattoos] are much more common now than they used to be.”

“There are millions of us who got tattooed in the 1990s, and now we are all having kids,” says Phil Padwe, author of Mommy Has a Tattoo. The children’s book features a youngster named James who is afraid of his tattooed neighbor until he realizes his mom has a tattoo as well. In the end, he isn’t afraid of tattoos anymore and even wears his own temporary skin art.

“He learns what I call ‘tattoo tolerance,'” Padwe says.

Padwe, himself heavily tattooed, developed the idea for the book three years ago when he needed a gift for a friend’s son. He went to the bookstore to find a children’s book about tattoos, but there was nothing on the subject.

“I thought, ‘This is a huge market’,” Padwe says. “We are all married and all starting to have kids, so how many people like this can there be? When you give a book like this, you are giving the message that it’s OK to keep being you, and you don’t have to change or cover up.”

If you’re thinking of getting a tattoo yourself, remember that the permanence of tattoos makes your choice a serious matter. Mistakes can happen in either the art or artist selection process. According to the Harris poll, 16 percent of people who regret a tattoo do so because it includes someone’s name. Professional soccer player David Beckham had his wife’s name, Victoria Beckham, tattooed in Hindi on his left forearm. Her first name was misspelled.

Think long and hard before getting one. Make sure it is exactly what you want, because after the artist has tattooed a dragon tail on your face, it won’t wash off. Tattoo connoisseur Trucker Tom suggests first applying a temporary tattoo similar to the tattoo you want to see if it feels right.

“If they feel the overwhelming urge to wash it off, then it’s money well spent, and they should forget about the idea of getting a real tattoo,” Wiles says. “On the other hand, if they like the experience, pick a good artist and go for it.”

At Transcend, George Carter leans in the doorway and watches a big guy named George Haritos let ink artist Lou Jacque tattoo the snake-haired demon Medusa, the Gorgon of Greek mythology, on his left arm. On the same arm is Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld.

“I’m Greek, what can I say,” Haritos says, admiring Jacque’s work. “I come here all the time to get touchups or new ink.”

Jacque’s neck is covered in tiny skull tattoos surrounding the number 22.

“Everybody’s got their thing,” Jacque says, dipping the needle into a container of yellow ink and pointing toward Medusa.

For heavily inked guys and gals, the mantra is simple: if you’ve got it, flaunt it. A new tattoo is a cool piece of art to show off to friends – until the newness wears off.

“It’s like when a truck driver puts a new piece of chrome on his truck,” Carter says. “New tattoos are like upgrading your body. When the old ones wear off, you want to get a new one.”

What you should know to ensure a healthy tattooing

Tattoo artists apply their work with a needle attached to a machine that rapidly vibrates up and down, injecting ink under several layers of skin. This is why artists sometimes refer to it as “pushing ink,” because the machine is actually applying ink below the surface of the skin.

The needle breaches the skin, making it susceptible to infection if not properly treated. Without proper tool hygiene and body care, risks include blood-borne diseases such as hepatitis B and C, tetanus, tuberculosis and HIV. Newly tatted skin is also at risk for skin disorders and infections without proper care. Some people also have allergic reactions to the skin dye.

Tattoo shops that run as responsible and clean businesses do not put customers at risk. It is important to choose wisely when selecting a shop or artist and take these precautions:

  • Choose a shop or artist that has been highly recommended by a trusted individual or professional. Never pay for a homemade tattoo just to save a buck.
  • Always ask to watch the artist remove the needle from its protective packaging. If the artist goes to a back room to retrieve it, ask if he or she would mind if you went with them. This is your body and your money.
  • Always strictly follow the care instructions for the first few weeks after you get a tattoo. Carelessness could result in infection. Your artist will explain exactly how to take care of your new art and may ask that you return for inspection.

Did You Know?

  • The origin of the word tattoo might have come from the Samoan or Tahitian word tatau. The first syllable means “hand” and repeats twice to demonstrate the repetitive action of tattooing. The u at the end means “color.”
  • The Ainu people of Japan wore facial tattoos. In Japanese, the word to describe traditional Japanese designs using ancient methods is irezumi, which means “insertion of ink.”
  • Archaeologists have discovered mummies bearing tattoos.
  • Tattoos are a form of cultural, spiritual or familial expression in many societies. Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, still wear facial tattoos.

For more information about tattoos, check out this site.

Tattoo Removal
A tattoo doesn’t have to be permanent. Many aesthetic physicians around the country offer laser tattoo removal because it is the fastest and most effective method. Laser removal is done with minimal risk, but it may require several treatments depending on ink color and tattoo size.

Dr. Ramesh Peramsetty, a family practice physician and the founding director of Tuscaloosa MedSpa in Tuscaloosa, Ala., uses the AlexTriVantage laser, which produces an intense burst of light that selectively shatters tattoo pigment. The laser breaks the pigment down into micro particles, and the body then absorbs the particles. Advanced laser technology offers minimal to no scarring if the patient closely follows care instructions to prevent wound infection.

Pain level: The pain is considered minimal and varies based on the location and skin sensitivity.

Cost: Approximately $200 and up, according to the size and ink colors of the tattoo.
– Carolyn Magner contributed to this report